Why is it important to have a deep and accurate understanding of God’s character?
Author A.W. Pink writes: “An unknown God can neither be trusted, served, nor worshiped.”
Bible teacher Jen Wilkin says it similarly: “The heart cannot love what the mind does not know.”
To know and glorify God is the purpose for which we were created. The Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches that man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The reality is that we cannot glorify and enjoy a God whose character we do not know and trust. It is important to note from the outset that the knowledge of God we so desperately need is more than just intellectual, head knowledge, but it is not less. Every human being’s greatest need is a spiritual and saving knowledge of God through Jesus Christ, but even this saving knowledge first begins with head knowledge.
It’s through the knowledge of God’s character in the gospel message that the Holy Spirit brings spiritual life to the hearts of many, resulting in saving faith. In the gospel–the good news of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ–believers come to know (first intellectually and then salvifically) who God is. Through the gospel message, we learn about God’s nature. We learn that God is holy, just, and wrathful; He cannot and will not let sin go unpunished. Through that same gospel message we learn that God is gracious, merciful, and rich in covenant-keeping love. He forgives sinners and brings them into relationship with himself forever. The Spirit uses the proclaimed gospel to grant his people a spiritual knowledge of him, and this is his work. Our job is to seek to know God and make him known to others as we share what he has revealed of his character through his word and through his Christ.
Here are three reasons we need accurate knowledge of the character of our God:
- The faith of both new and seasoned believers is fortified and strengthened as we learn and know more of God’s character.
- The more we know the God of the Bible, the more we will trust, believe, delight in, worship and serve him in every circumstance of our lives–both the good and the hard.
- Knowing the character of God will help guard us against deception from false doctrine and despair when our suffering is real and we wonder where God is.
For this study we are going to focus on one very important aspect of God’s character that is revealed throughout all of Scripture: The Steadfast love of God. Our objective in studying God’s steadfast love is to know, love, and trust him more.
We’ve already talked about how God’s character is revealed most clearly in the gospel, but God revealed himself to his people long before Christ came to earth. Exodus 34: 6-7 is God’s own proclamation of “his name”, which is a declaration of his character. These verses essentially became Israel’s credo about who God is. Before looking at the passage, let’s get some context: God miraculously set Israel free from years of oppression and slavery in the land of Egypt and entered into covenant relationship with them. Under Moses’ leadership, he led them into the wilderness (on the way to the Promised Land) and gave them the law on tablets of stone. It wasn’t long, however, before there was a breach in the covenant relationship. God’s chosen people were unfaithful to him, breaking covenant and committing idolatry by building a golden calf to worship.
When Moses descended from the mountain to discover this idolatry, he was filled with righteous anger and threw down the stone tablets, breaking them in pieces (a picture of the broken covenant). He then made intercession for the people before the Lord, asking the LORD not to remove his presence and pleading with the LORD to show him his ways and his glory. God called Moses back up to the mountain, where he would write the law on a new set of tablets and proclaim to him his name and his character. Let’s look at the passage.
The Lord passed before him [Moses] and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” – Exodus 34:6-7
Of this passage, Dane Ortlund writes, “Exodus 34:6-7 is not a one-off descriptor, a peripheral passing comment. In this text we climb in the very center of who God is. ” Tim Mackie and Jon Collins of The Bible Project say, “You know how John 3:16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…’ is the most quotable verse in the New Testament? It’s as if these two verses, Exodus 34:6-7, were the John 3:16 of ancient Israel. They come up so much as you read the Bible.“
The passage lists several of Yahweh’s key character traits, but for the purpose of our study, we are going to focus on steadfast love, the one character trait that God mentions twice here. God tells Moses that he abounds in steadfast love and keeps steadfast love for thousands. Since the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, let’s take a look at the Hebrew word that is translated as “steadfast love” in order to get a better sense of its meaning. Here are some things to note:
*The Hebrew word translated as steadfast love in Exodus 34:6-7 is hesed.
*The Hebrew word hesed is used around 245 times throughout the Old Testament
*The English language doesn’t have one word that fully and accurately conveys all the meaning contained in the Hebrew word hesed.
*Bible translators have used a variety of English words to translate hesed.
*King James Version uses mercy or lovingkindness
*New American Standard Version as uses mercy or lovingkindness
*English Standard Version uses steadfast love
*New International Version uses love or unfailing love
* Biblical scholars and commentators say that hesed encompasses the ideas of commitment, generosity, and affection. All three are bound up in the term.
We might define hesed as love in action, a demonstration of promise-keeping commitment and care. It is more than a feeling of affection, yet it is not devoid of affection. Hesed has been described as loyal love by some scholars. It’s a love that is active, full of generosity and kindness, and not conditional or based on the worth of the person to whom it is being shown. Musician and author Michael Card describes hesed in this way: When the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything. God’s hesed is very good news for his people!
*Of the (approximately) 245 uses of the word hesed in Scripture, 75% of them refer to God’s steadfast love, while the other 25% refer to humans showing steadfast love to others.
Let’s take a look at 3 (of the many) passages that speak of the loyal love of God for his people, and we will follow that by looking at a biblical example of a human demonstrating God-like steadfast love to another. The first three passages we’ll look at all focus on the boundlessness and eternality of God’s hesed.
*Psalm 36:5-10: “Your steadfast love [hesed] O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds…How precious is your steadfast love [hesed], O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings…Oh continue your steadfast love [hesed] to those who know you…”
*Psalm 136: The Psalmist repeats the phrase, “His steadfast love [hesed] endures forever” twenty six times times. He praises God for his mighty works and loyal love for his people, which began at creation and continued throughout their history.
*Lamentations 3:17-24: The prophet Jeremiah is grieving the deep losses brought about by Israel’s continual idolatry (attack from foreign nations & exile from their land). In the midst of his deep grief, his hope remains because he is confident of God’s loyal love. “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
What we read about in these three passages is God’s promise-keeping, covenant love for his people. It is a love that is as high as the heavens. It’s a love that endures forever. It’s a love that never ceases, in spite of the failures and unfaithfulness of those to whom this love is shown. It is a love almost beyond what we can fathom, but one that, by God’s grace, we can extend back to God and others (albeit imperfectly).
There are multiple stories in the Bible in which humans demonstrate God-like hesed toward others, but let’s take a look at one of my favorite examples. One of the most beautiful examples of steadfast love shown by one person to another is found in the book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite young woman who married an Israelite man. After her husband, his brother, and his father all died, Ruth committed herself to her (elderly and destitute) mother-in-law Naomi rather than going back to her own family and native country. When Naomi urged her to go back, Ruth said, “…where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die…” (Ruth 1:16-17). Ruth’s kind and generous act of loving commitment to Naomi is referred to later in the story as an act of“hesed” (Ruth 3:10). If you are familiar with the rest of Ruth’s story, you know that it’s through Ruth’s steadfast love to Naomi that God led her to meet Boaz. Ruth and Boaz eventually married and had a son named Obed, who became the grandfather of King David. It was through the line of David that Christ the Redeemer came.
This is just one biblical story among others to help us see that the steadfast love of God is one of his communicable attributes. This means that, to some degree, we can (and should) possess this attribute. In fact, the Bible teaches that God expects his children to actually love steadfast love. Let’s read Micah 6:6-8:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness [hesed] and to walk humbly with your God?
The Lord is not interested in sacrifices and spiritual ritualism. In response to the steadfast love he has shown us, he desires that we LOVE steadfast love. Our response to God’s loyal love is to believe him and loyally love him back (We love because he first loved us. -1 John 4:19) and also to demonstrate that steadfast love to other people, as Ruth did to Naomi.
As we close out this brief study of God’s steadfast love, I want us to consider how, as New Covenant believers, we see and experience the steadfast love of God in Jesus Christ. I want us to think about how this shapes our identity as those who are wanted, chosen, loved, and secure in spite of our own sin and unfaithfulness to God.
There is no Greek word (the language of the New Testament) that is an exact equivalent of the Hebrew word hesed, but the idea of God’s steadfast love is all over the New Testament. As New Covenant believers, we are the beneficiaries of God’s promise-keeping steadfast love in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). Jesus is God’s hesed –his generous, committed, affectionate, undeserved love for his people– incarnate. It is through him that both Old and New Covenant believers confidently rest in the steadfast love of God for all of eternity. Let’s take a look at three New Testament passages that convey the idea of God’s steadfast love for his chosen people.
*Luke 1:54-55: These verses are part of Mary’s song of praise after the angel reveals to her that she will be the mother of Jesus. She recognizes that the Messiah she carries is God’s fulfillment of his committed, generous, loyal love to his people: “He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever.”
*Ephesians 2:4-7: But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
*Romans 8:38-39: Because God’s hesed in Jesus Christ reaches to the skies and never ceases, NOTHING in all of creation is big enough or strong enough to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It is through the cross-work of Christ that we see the self-proclaimed declaration of God’s character in Exodus 34:6-7 made manifest. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God extends mercy, grace, steadfast love, and forgiveness to the undeserving while also not clearing the guilty or allowing sin to go unpunished. Bless his name!
I would like to close by praying Micah 7:18-20 in thanks to God for his steadfast love toward us:
Father God, who is like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of your inheritance? You do not retain your anger against us forever because you delight in steadfast love! You have had compassion on us. You have tread our iniquities underfoot. In Christ, you have cast all our sins and iniquities into the depths of the sea. Through your faithful Son, you have shown faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you swore to them from days of old. And through your faithful Son, you have made us sons and daughters, too–the grateful recipients of your eternally unceasing steadfast love.